The Great Education Debate – 26th January, 2014

The Great Education Debate.

I have always been interested in education and at one time aspired to be a teacher.

(This idea was well and truly knocked out of me when, as a young man in my late 20’s, I found myself  broke and starving in Bangkok in the mid 1970’s. In desperation took up teaching to make ends meet and it didn’t take but a few days for me to become totally disillusioned with the idea of teaching for the rest of my life – but that’s another story).

I have nothing but good memories of my own primary school education (up to the age of 11) but very mixed and generally not good memories of my secondary education (11-16).

I left school in 1962, and since then there had been a veritable revolution in UK education. Thousands of ‘selective’ grammar schools, (where pupils sat an examination at 11 years old to gain admittance), were abolished and turned into egalitarian comprehensives and with the advent of many years of the Labour (i.e. left leaning), government in The UK during the 60’s and 70’s, many changes were made to an education system that actually hadn’t been working at all badly.

I don’t propose to go into the ‘whys and where-fors’ of all the changes and the tinkering that went into education during the decades following the early sixties, as they were wide ranging and varied in nature and effect.

However, many of the changes were socialistic in concept and often did more to satisfy the educators’ desires to be politically correct, rather than to produce the largest number of kids with a first class education who would be equipped to take on an increasingly competitive world.

In any event, I have been away from the UK for many of these intervening years, (although I did put my two daughters through school in the 1980’s and 90’s), so for the purpose of this article I will ‘fast forward’ to writing about State education in the UK, as it is today.

My interest was re-awakened recently by the advent of three ground breaking reality documentaries on UK television, entitled, ‘Educating Essex’, ‘Educating Yorkshire’, and ‘Tough Young Teachers’. The first two programmes followed two non-selective secondary,(ages 11-18), schools through a complete academic year; and the third documentary, which is still showing, follows 6 graduate teachers during their first year of  teaching.

While accepting that all the schools in these documentaries were described as ‘challenging’ and ‘failing’ and located in ‘difficult and/ or deprived areas’ and would therefore provide extreme situations, they do nevertheless provide an insight into the state of today’s education and the teaching culture that exists within in UK state schools today.

By far and away the aspect of modern-day education that struck me the most was the discipline – or lack of it. How on earth can you hope to teach these kids, many of whom have no desire to learn anything, if there is a total breakdown of class discipline? The teachers seemed to spend most of their energies dealing with the hooligans rather than educating the remainder.

It so happens that my youngest daughter is now into her third year of teaching at a decent, church-sponsored state school in the Midlands, so I decided to open a dialogue with her. After all, if she doesn’t have a relevant opinion on the problems of educating today’s apparently undisciplined youth, then nobody has.

Here is what I wrote:

Subject: Discipline in schools

I know you didn’t watch the recent ‘Educating Essex’ and ‘Educating Yorkshire ‘TV documentaries but I did find these programmes, real eye openers.

In my far-off school days, pupils were pretty much ruled with an iron fist and misbehaviour was kept well within bounds; but there again, most of the teachers who ‘ruled’ us cared little about our education or our results – and this was a grammar school, one of the best in the county.

Merely talking in class would be punished by long, after school detentions where we had to write hundreds of  mindless ‘lines’ and any slightly more serious transgression  would be dealt with by a caning.

Answering back to a teacher or using abusive language would have quickly led to suspension and/or expulsion and no doubt a severe clip round the ear from angry parents.

It seems to me that these days the boot is on the other foot and discipline in schools has gone from one extreme to the other.

The students can get away with almost anything, and the poor, dedicated teachers are continually challenged to find ways to persuade their charges to behave in class and try to learn something for their own good.

I know that video editors can be extremely selective and ‘editorial’ in the way that they present their documentaries, and even if the general school culture is not as extreme as depicted in “Essex” and “Yorkshire” , there is little doubt in  my mind that there has been a ‘sea-change’ in the way kids are raised and educated. I am full of admiration for the dedication of the teachers and can see why so many elect to leave the profession in frustration and often in disgust.

There is currently another excellent series on BBC Three entitled ‘Tough Young Teachers’ which follows 6 new graduate teachers during their first year of teaching in three different schools.

Again, I find this illuminating. Certainly the pupils in this series seem, on the whole, to behave better than those in the Ch 4 documentaries, but there is still a major discipline problem for most teachers. Again, I am struck by the dedication of these young teachers, but wonder why more guidance isn’t given on exactly how to control an unruly class and deal with the few ‘bad eggs’ that spoil it for everyone else.

Without proper discipline there can be no proper progress and it seems to me to be so fundamental to the education process that it shouldn’t be left to ‘rookie’, inexperienced teachers to work out their own strategies. This can only be to the detriment of teachers’ job satisfaction and well-being and adversely affect the students’ quality of education.

After only a few months of teaching, one poor female teacher is on her ‘final warning’ due to her inability to maintain discipline. I find this extremely disturbing as she is clearly dedicated and I cannot believe that she can’t be taken in hand and shown a few techniques to improve her teaching and discipline skills.

Or is it just a hopeless task to try and discipline kids in an age where their parents exert no control at home and are more likely to side with their kids rather than the teacher in any conflict that may arise?

Or do you have a different experience in your school? I would be interested in your views when you have a spare moment.

 

Here is her reply:

 

You ask a very interesting question, and there are many factors which I believe  contribute to the way that classrooms are today that result in behaviour that is, essentially, bad! (Sorry about the essay!).

Firstly the argument is that teaching, as it was, known as “chalk and talk” is not the best way to engage students in learning, and is not accessible to everyone (e.g. if you keep your head down and write rubbish, you won’t get in trouble, but you aren’t improving in your learning).

A lot of progress has been made in the episodes that take place in classrooms, and all teachers are expected, during an Ofsted inspection, to show pupils collaborating with each other, working in groups, making discoveries, and doing activities upon which they are learning concepts at a “deeper level”.

Something is also banded about a lot that any activity that takes place should be maximum equivalent to a minute per age of the child (so for a first year secondary student, no activity is meant to last more than 10 minutes). This is all down to the idea that children have awful attention spans, due to TV, computer games etc.

So when you walk into a classroom, what is EXPECTED, is a “lively” classroom, where students are MEANT to talk to each other (about the work), sometimes out of their seats etc. There is a common assumption that if students are all silent and listening to the teacher for 20 minutes that Ofsted will not award an “outstanding” for that lesson.

So when a newly qualified teacher enters the school environment, they are equipped with games and puzzles, treasure hunts and fascinating things for students to do. If the students misbehave, is it the lack of fun and engaging activities that is the cause?

According to some, they are bored because of the instant gratifications culture they live in, and therefore they misbehave. I think that this attitude in education does not help students themselves learn how to sit still and listen, and respect others. It is reinforcing their belief that they can get what they want when they want, and as a result have no respect for what is given to them.

I would say that behaviour management is something that is talked a lot about in teacher training, but it is so difficult because every situation is completely different, and ‘talking about it’ is not the same as ‘doing it’. In schools, there tends to be a lot of old, very experienced teachers, and a lot of new, inexperienced teachers, and not many in between. (They have either given up or are ambitiously seeking promotion between schools).

There is a gap in experience when it comes to behaviour management. The old hands have spent years at this and have the authority and experience, (some have also been around when caning existed), and don’t relate to the newer generation of teachers that struggle to maintain authority, don’t have an established teacher persona (perhaps because they view themselves as ‘enablers’ of education, rather than the person who has the facts and are going to give it to the students).

It all comes down to the school and the systems they have in place. Many schools I have been in do not have an enforceable ‘behaviour policy’ and sometimes the policy is not supported by senior management. (it takes effort and time to give detentions, to see sanctions through etc?) Teachers are left to work it out for themselves and to do things their way. Also, the sanctions that CAN be given are not particularly effective. We are not allowed by law to keep pupils behind after school unless we have given their parents formal 24 hour notice.

I know of one school which does not allow any detentions to be set for ‘behaviour’ reasons. I think the idea is that they can only set detentions for work missed/unsatisfactory, but if they swear at a teacher, they cannot have a detention, because that’s okay as long as they are working.

Strange idealisms in schools and a general ethos about how we should be nurturing them positively – and students know their rights, which means that it’s all a bit of a mess. Generally, the consensus in the staff room is that “kids are getting worse these days, no respect, no manners,” etc , but I also think it’s the expectations of kids when they go to school. They think it’s meant to be “fun”.

I also think that parents demand accountability from the teachers. If the children are badly behaved, it’s the teachers fault, not their kid’s, so the misbehaving kid does not get punished at home.

No matter where you teach, you will have to deal with these ongoing behavioural problems. The behaviour I deal with is relatively low level and I don’t have any issues! Lucky me!

 

And here is my response:

 

One of the most telling sequences in the BBC Three series, ‘Tough Young Teachers’, is between one of the male teachers and a teenage student.

The student is clearly very intelligent and articulate but he is a handful and a disruptive influence in class. He simply refuses to accept the discipline of the classroom. He maintained that he did not have to respect the teacher, and that they were equals and that the teacher had no right to tell him what to do.

It is one thing to observe hooligan-type behaviour from kids in ‘Educating Essex’ and ‘Yorkshire’ who are from poor, working class, broke/single parent homes and are barely literate, but quite another to see a boy with obvious intellect, effectively espousing anarchist-type sentiments about which he obviously felt very deeply.

Maybe he was an extreme case – and I think he was – but it nevertheless demonstrates the state of mind in today’s youth, where, as you say, they know their rights, and they think that the state owes them a life and that they are entitled to more or less do how they please.

Some of your comments/explanations were a complete ‘eye opener’ to me and it makes me wonder why more of these new ‘developments’ in teaching are not explained better in these documentaries. Maybe it’s because I have been away so long that I wasn’t aware of these new approaches to behaviour management with its emphasis on group activities, class collaborations etc. But I doubt it – it is more likely to be a lack of foresight by the film makers.

Thinking back to my own school years, even in those far off days, the best teachers always encouraged class participation and there was often a lot of interaction when teachers invited us to give our views/opinions/answers to questions/topics he /she posed. I even recall being allowed to help fellow students in maths work when they couldn’t fathom out some of the basic principles of geometry or whatever, and there were many robust discussions in English literature, French, history and other subjects.

OK, I am sure all that would pale into insignificance when compared to the modern teaching approach, but it certainly did exist and it wasn’t all ‘chalk and talk’. But one thing we always had was well ordered, well-disciplined classrooms. Even if one accepts that there  must be a lot more ‘class participation’ and interaction than there was in my day, (and I do accept this), I still see no reason why any changes in teaching practises should lead to anarchy and a break-down in class discipline.

Aren’t they are two separate issues?

The example I gave above of the student who had no respect for the young teacher, (who, incidentally, had taken a massive potential pay cut to follow his dream), is surely at the heart of this. If they do not respect the teachers and the teaching process, and the authorities are unable or unwilling to provide the teachers with the tools to impose discipline, then these schools are on a hiding to nothing.

I also find the ‘attention-span’ issue very interesting. There is no doubt that these days, not only the kids, but most of the general public have very short attention spans. You only have to look at any TV drama, soap or movie to see that very few scenes last more than a minute or so. It seems that the whole western world is geared up to provide instant gratification, be it entertainment, food, or it would seem, the school classroom.

Are the kids’ brains permanently impaired? Or can they be weaned out of this ‘attention-span deficit’? This is a difficult question that maybe only a psychologist can answer.

Maybe it is the schools that should lead the charge in tackling this problem, and as you mention, it seems that at least some feel that schools shouldn’t be reinforcing the belief that ‘they can get what they want when they want.’

Whatever schools do, surely they shouldn’t be encouraging or pandering to kids with short attention-spans, just to make life bearable. After all, how will this equip them for work in the outside world or prepare them for higher education?

In my humble opinion, many of today’s parents must bear a lion’s share of the blame for the current indiscipline and self-gratifying attitude amongst today’s youth. It seems that each generation does a slightly worse job than their predecessors in raising their kids and I am sure there are many reasons for this.

But instead of the schools meekly accepting the ‘status quo’, shouldn’t they be doing something to reverse the decline in discipline, respect and just common to garden moral ethics?

I accept that it is a ‘catch 22’. Without the support of the parents and school authorities, any school that tries to impose proper discipline will have set themselves a huge task.

I also understand that this problem varies enormously from school to school and no doubt from town to town, and I am pleased to learn that at least in your school you seem to have the problem well in hand.

If she writes back again, I will publish it in a later blog.

Please feel free to join the debate…. I promise to publish your views, provided they are not abusive.

 

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